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Space debris: an economic issue

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Fri Aug 14, 2009 9:06 pm via: source
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(EADS Astrium) – On 10 February 2009, a collision occurred in low Earth orbit 800km above Siberia between one of America’s 66 Iridium commercial telephone satellites and the Russian Kosmos-2251 military satellite, which had been out of service for 14 years, generating hundreds of pieces of debris at an altitude occupied by a very large number of satellites.

This unprecedented satellite-to-satellite crash – all previously recorded instances had been of satellites being struck by debris – has reignited the debate on space congestion and the accumulation of debris.

What is this debris?

While it is hard to calculate accurately the number of objects in orbit above our heads, their origin and their possible impacts have been clearly identified. There are an estimated 3,000 active or inactive satellites orbiting the Earth, together with hundreds of thousands of pieces of detritus of all types. Beyond an altitude of 200km (extra-atmospheric space), there are launcher stages which have remained in orbit, satellites which have ceased to function or have reached the end of their operational life, waste from manned vessels or orbital stations, and debris resulting from fragmentation.

Objects varying in size from 10cm to 30cm in low Earth orbits (left) and up to 1m in geostationary orbit (right). These artist's impressions are based on actual density data. The relative size of the objects in the pictures is not to scale so that they can be seen more easily.

Objects varying in size from 10cm to 30cm in low Earth orbits (left) and up to 1m in geostationary orbit (right). These artist's impressions are based on actual density data. The relative size of the objects in the pictures is not to scale so that they can be seen more easily.

Inner space also abounds in objects of human origin (assembly components, jettisoned protective covers, bolts, shields, etc), which collide and in turn create large numbers of fragments. Depending on the material they are made from and their orbit, the lifespan of all of these objects can be anything from six months to several million years.

To date, about 13,000 objects, varying in size from 10cm to 30cm in low Earth orbits and up to 1m in geostationary orbit, have been officially identified and are being tracked (using ground-based radar or telescopes, or space-borne instruments). Then there would seem to be between 200,000 and 250,000 fragments smaller than 10cm, tens of millions (source: CNES) of 0.1cm–1cm diameter fragments, with micrometric objects representing a figure of about 1013 or 1014.

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